09/16/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Does It Mean For Multiethnic Democracies If Scotland Leaves The UK?

Scotland will vote Thursday on whether to become an independent country. Whatever the outcome, approximately half of the population believes it should. I am not Scottish, and I am here neither to defend nor oppose their independence from the United Kingdom. I have no advice to offer on that front, and I have no desire to freak anybody out by suggesting that their independence would mean the end of democracy or any such nonsense. What I am is someone who has read, thought, and written much over the years about multiethnic societies. Therefore, the push for Scottish independence has brought some issues and questions to my mind that I'd like to share.

The primary, overarching question I'm grappling with is this: What does it mean that half of Scots want independence despite Britain's federal structure, one that has already devolved a good amount of power to Scotland (with a promise made by all three major British parties for even more autonomy should the referendum for independence fail). I want to be very clear here. I'm not criticizing any Scot for preferring independence to autonomy. I want to gain an understanding of why devolution--in a democratic, liberal society in which the civil rights of Scots as individuals is not an issue--was unable to make Scotland staying in the UK a slam dunk. I also want to ask what other federal, multiethnic democracies can learn from that failing. And make no mistake, it is a failing, even if the Scots ultimately vote to remain part of Great Britain by a sliver-sized margin.

The Scottish move for independence bears some resemblance to the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the so-called "Velvet Divorce" that occurred on the first day of 1993. There, however, the breakup was negotiated by the premiers of the two constituent parts. It was never ratified by a referendum. In fact, according to a late 1992 poll, barely a third of Czechs and of Slovaks supported the breakup, although 80 percent of respondents thought it had become inevitable by that point. Czechoslovakia had only been together 75 years, was a democracy for barely 20 of them, and the people spoke different, albeit quite similar, languages. The Act of Union that brought the Scottish and English parliaments together to form a new state took place more than 300 years ago as a result of the 1707 Act of Union. There is a common language spoken throughout the UK (no jokes about accents, if you please), and scholars have argued that the Scots, Welsh, and English did embrace a strong sense of British identity after 1707.

One thing to note is that few states comes together without the influence of economics and either conquest or the fear thereof. Money and guns. For starters, the English wanted to make sure Scotland would never serve as a base for a French invasion, and the Scots wanted access to English wealth and empire. While those reasons proved decisive in 1707, circumstances have changed. No one is invading England from the north, and the sun has long set on the British Empire and Pax Britannica. Yet one might have thought 300 years together would have created a set of bonds strong enough to compete with those tying the Scots solely to one another; that many had, in fact, become one. And this really is the question that the Scottish referendum raises for me, one that applies globally to all multiethnic countries, in particular to democracies, namely: Can they work?

I have long believed that a multiethnic population can form bonds that connect people from different backgrounds into a single national community. When combined with democratic government, a liberal system that protects individual rights, and a guarantee of legal equality for all, such a society reflects democratic pluralism. As I've written before:

A society that embraces democratic pluralism recognizes that some of its citizens will identify as members of groups based on shared heritage, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc., and that these affinities may even cross the borders of countries. Such a society acknowledges this diversity and the choices it offers citizens in expressing their identity. However, a robust and successful democratic pluralism, in the case of the United States, calls on its citizens to identify with America as their country and, equally importantly, to identify as members of the community of all Americans. Such a community evinces a commitment to democratic ideals and the common good as well as a shared history, and is one where citizens communicate with one another by means of a common language and culture.

To return to the Scottish situation, there are important differences between it and the United States. One is the relative weakness in this country of regionally based proto-nationalist movements (Texas notwithstanding). Another is that most Britons do not have a homeland that their ancestors left, at least not in the same way as people do in modern immigrant societies like the U.S.

In terms of the broader influence of the Scottish independence vote, there is a similar push in the Spanish region of Catalonia, which has its own independence referendum scheduled for November 9 (although, unlike that of Scotland, the Catalan referendum is opposed by its central government). The Scottish drive also resonates with the long-standing movement to split Flanders off from Belgium, not to mention other regional independence movements in Europe and even North America, from Quebec (where there is substantial support and where votes for independence have come close to succeeding) to the aforementioned Texas (much more fringe).

What's happening in Scotland is most relevant for Europe, as opposed to a place like Iraq, whose borders were drawn arbitrarily by Europeans (ahem, in particular Scots and Englishmen) and imposed on the Kurds and Arabs--Sunni and Shia--of the region after World War I. Nevertheless, if Britain can't figure out a way to stay together, it doesn't seem there's much hope for a united, democratic Iraq (again, that's not the Scots' problem). On the other hand, Switzerland has long been a successful, multiethnic, federal democracy. So there certainly are counterexamples.

There's an argument to be made that the Scottish case--where the push for independence really is divorced from any kind of ethnic nationalism, and is truly an inclusive, civic nationalist movement--is simply unproblematic from the perspective of multiethnic states. Britain is a multiethnic democracy, and so will Scotland be. What's the big deal? That reality is why I'm not tearing my hair out about Scottish independence either way. This is not volkisch nationalism, "Scotland for the Scots," or any other such despicable sentiments.

And to push the question further, does it matter if the UK, and Spain, and Belgium, and France, and Italy, and Germany all break off regions, as long as democracy and peace are preserved? Maybe not. But I think about these questions because that's what I do. I also live in the United States, which is a multiethnic society. So I want to ask what can we do to make sure that our neighbors, our fellow Americans, feel included, feel a part of the national community.

We can have a political system in which money isn't speech, and in which those without it have a comparable say to those swimming in it. We can have a justice system that really does treat everyone equally, no matter their race or any other aspect of who they are. We can have an economic system that isn't rigged in favor of those at the top, people who say "I've got mine, the rest of you are on your own."

But it goes beyond those things, as crucial as they are. We also have to work actively to cultivate a sense of community. We must envision our history--our national narrative--in a realistic, inclusive way, one that rings true to all of us, by teaching about our democratic, egalitarian values as well the ways in which we have failed them by denying equality to so many of us. We can depict our story as both one of oppression and of steps toward real progress--steps about which Americans were deeply divided and over which we have fought and bled. As Jamelle Bouie stated, we need "a history that tells a fair and complex story of America, a country born of lofty goals that it still struggles to fulfill." That's a story that should ring true for all Americans.

I do believe it matters that the population of the United States believes itself to be a single people. It is vitally important that our project of building a national community succeeds. Why? Because multiethnic societies like the United States (and, hopefully, Scotland and Britain--whether apart or together) can demonstrate that pluralism can work, that people of different backgrounds can come to see themselves as, yes, a single, national family.

The opposite of democratic pluralism, of an inclusive, civic sense of nationhood that unifies a diverse population is, in a word: ISIS. Let's be crystal clear--I'm not talking about ISIS as some kind of significant military threat to the U.S. I am talking about two diametrically opposed ways of organizing human life. There's democratic pluralism, and there's the belief that if you are different from me then I must kill you. Now. Whatever anyone thinks we can or should do to ISIS militarily, in the long run we must provide an alternative model to that kind of misanthropic ideology in order to win the fight to build a more peaceful and just world. No matter what happens in Scotland on Thursday, that's the fight that really matters.